Political railway

Victoria Panfilova, NG commentator, exclusively for Vestnik Kavkaza

The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway (BTK) will be launched in early 2014. The transportation line will become part of the East-West Corridor and boost the economic development of the region. It will have a capacity of 30 million tons of cargo a year. The NATO is viewed as the primary source of financial flows, where the idea of a reverse transit of cargo from Afghanistan is feasible.


The BTK was initiated in the mid-1990s as a project of geopolitical influence of Europe in the South Caucasus. Some experts said that the realization of the project would change the geopolitical and geoeconomic situation in the region and cause certain complications for Russia. Turkish President Abdullah Gul has a similar point of view: “Realization of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway project in the future may become a project capable of changing the situation in the region,” he said at the third summit of Turkic-speaking states in Qabala.


Construction of the BTK was planned as part of a larger project to merge the railways of the South Caucasus and Europe through Turkey. The BTK will increase the flow of containers, tankers and other types of cargo from Asia to Europe. Realization of the Marmaris project (construction of the tunnel under the Bosphorus) will be completed, opening up railway links to Europe.


The railway construction that started in 2007 has dragged on. Although specialists assure that the conditions for construction of railway lines were favorable and the distances relatively small, postponement of its launch seemed more like a political than a technical issue.


Inconsistencies appeared from the very start of the project. Turkey, admitting the importance of the BTK at the very beginning, was complaining about the  high costs of building a line from Akhalkalaki (Georgia) to Kars and pointing out the great economic efficiency of reviving the existing line from Kars to Gyumri (Armenia). Some independent Turkish experts insisted such a model for realization of the BTK: construction was cheaper and the involvement of Armenia had potential for ‘détente’ in the region. However, the refusal of Baku to cooperate with Yerevan without deoccupation of its territory and a readiness to take on additional expenses played the decisive role.


What concerns Georgia is that the project had an ambiguous image. The decision to take a loan for the initiative, even if it were a 1% credit, from Azerbaijan and let Azerbaijan carry out the construction was a subject of puzzlement among opposition and experts. Ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs Salome Zurabishvili had concerns about it: “Azerbaijan needs the road, so it should pay for its construction.” Independent experts went even farther and attributed the project to a betrayal of national interests: launch of the BTK would reorient freighting from the East to the West and back, depriving Georgian ports of some income. Alexander Sobyanin, head of the Association of Border Cooperation, gave clarifications about the idea: “Georgia was expecting Azerbaijan to play a more active role in transit, principally transportation of hydrocarbons from the pipeline to the railway and then to the Batumi Port. But Baku cut Tbilisi down to size. This is why Baku has economic effect, while Moscow, Washington, London and Paris had political impact. In geoeconomic terms, Azerbaijan is the most influential state in the region.”


Observers do not rule out that one of the indirect reasons for dragging of the BTK construction is the reshaping political situation in Georgia. The new Georgian authorities checked large projects of their predecessors. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili even called construction of the BTK a necessity. However, his visit to Baku resulted in disappearance of ‘doubts’. In the context of Azerbaijan’s readiness to finance all the work by providing a loan of $1 billion with an interest of just 1%, Georgia’s refusal could turn into a big scandal.


The ‘trackstand’ Tbilisi suddenly started over the BTK project coincided with announcements to launch the Abkhaz railway connecting the railway systems of Georgia and Russia. Their profit in the initiative is obvious. Perhaps Sukhumi had expectations of some financing flows. Revival of railway connection with Russia through Georgia and Abkhazia would let them take a deep breath.


Abkhazia was the first to make a sudden and straight-out refusal because restoration of the railway had extra risks around Georgia. Then the decline hit the inconsiderable enthusiasm of Moscow. The reason may hide in the fact that the position of new Georgian authorities in some issues suited Moscow more than the position of resigning Mikheil Saakashvili. Eventually, Moscow could not find an ally in the eyes of Tbilisi. The final blow on the idea was made by Baku.


“It was pressure on Tbilisi. It was soft, but unavoidable. Baku does not want Armenian economy to gain momentum, to have cargo transported to Armenia. No matter how much money enters the republic, the economy will not work properly without cargo turnover,” Sobyanin supposes. As a result, Georgia had no reasons to quit the BTK project or ‘sabotage’ it. Besides, the idea to take part in the transportation of cargo from Afghanistan to Europe was a tempting one. And it is not a matter of income from transit, but political proximity to the superpower.


Justin Friedman, Director of the Office of Caucasus Affairs and Regional Affairs of the US State Department, promised to consider the recent offer. He said that withdrawal of the forces from Afghanistan was a multi-level process and needed use of infrastructure and communications. NATO may make use of the railway, as long as the fees are suitable, Friedman believes.


Yet, Alexander Sobyanin doubts that the route will be used by NATO. “The main route to transport cargo runs through Pakistan and Arab states to Europe. The so-called Caspian route (through the Kazakh Port of Aktau to Azerbaijani ports and then along the BTK) will have little use if any, the route is costly,” Sobyanin said.


According to the expert, the BTK is, first of all, a political project and all the talk about congestion and enormous freighting volumes is hypothetical. “The road to Kars and, generally, the railway network in Turkey was planned within the framework of the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA). However, experimental portions of multimodal cargo through other European corridors (TRACECA, UNESCAP and other European corridors) show that there is practically no transit at the moment without political motivation. The cargo Azerbaijani economy needs has no attachment to the Georgian route. It may be redirected to other routes, for example, Volgodon or Russian railways. If it comes to vital transportation networks, Azerbaijan refers to links with Nakhchivan, but not transportation connections with Turkey through Georgia,” Alexander Sobyanin noted. Judging by his words, the main role of the BTK is of political nature. The project has no real threat for Russia and it is not an alternative to Eurasian transportation projects. Georgia may get a clear, although not very big, benefit from transit.